Sunday, February 27, 2005

The geopolitical significance of nutmeg 

On Friday afternoon I had a little time to kill in Washington's Union Station, so I clung to habit and impulsively bought books. I'm a good chunk of the way through one of them, Tracy Dahlby's book Allah's Torch: A Report From Behind the Scenes In Asia's War On Terror. The book is as much travelogue as geopolitical treatise, and as such contains a lot of non-GWOT local color. The author's vehicle is a hair-raising trip to the Banda Islands in the eastern reaches of Indonesia on a boat full of jihadis off to whack a bunch of Christians. In case you are not familiar with the Bandas, herewith a map:
 Posted by Hello

The Bandas have a storied past, all because they were once the only place on earth where nutmeg could be found:
The Bandas, thirteen jots of volcanic rock located in a stretch of far ocean between the Java and Arafura seas, north of Australia and west of New Guinea, were interesting for a variety of reasons. It was there in 1512 that sailors, swabbing in the squadron of the Portuguese explorer Antonio de Abreu, had followed an alluring fragrance smack into the fabled islands to discover an incredibly large treasure hidden in a deceptively small package -- the golden, walnut-sized fruit Myristica fragrans, otherwise known as the common nutmeg.

It is hard to fathom today just how popular the nutmeg was in Europe in those benighted days. More than three hundred years before the invention of anything remotely resembling either modern refrigeration or miracle drugs, the humble fruit, dried and grated, was prized (correctly) for keeping meat from rotting, and (wrongly but understandably) as a poultice for warding off the Plague, a.k.a. the Black Death, which had wiped out a full third of Europe's population and was still at its deadly work. In addition, the nutmeg's use as a tranquilizer, sleeping potion, and a medieval form of Viagra led to a stiffening [heh - ed.] demand that set its price in the bourses at Rotterdam, London, and Paris on a par with silver and gold.

And that was when it was available at all. Up to the time of Abreu's discovery, the nutmeg had arrived in Europe as if by magic, traveling from the Orient by caravan through the bazaars of Central Asia, passing through many hands, exact point of origin unknown. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, effectively cutting off Europe's fix, it was collective nutmeg withdrdawal that helped propel Europe into its vaunted Age of Exploration. Christopher Columbus had been searching for a sea link to the "spiceries" of the East when he'd had the rum luck to bang into North America. When the luckier Abreu found his way into the Bandas two decades later, the tiny archipelago, the only known source of nutmeg on earth, quickly became a focal point of the global economy. As author Giles Milton notes in his riveting history Nathaniel's Nutmeg, the shipyards of Portugal, Spain, England, and Holland when into "a flurry of activity that sparked what would later become known as the spice race, a desperate and protracted struggle for control of one of the smallest groups of islands in the world."

With nutmeg now selling FOB Europe at fantastical markups northward of 30,000 percent, the European spice hunters, and the merchant princes who backed them, were only too happy to make their money the old-fashioned way, which is to say through murder and theft. After outmaneuvering both Portugal and Spain, Holland seized the Bandas in 1621, and set about "pacifying" the native population. According to one historical account, the Dutch briskly killed or displaced 14,400 of the 15,000 Bandanese islanders. Less successful in uprooting the well-armed British, who had managed to grab the harp-shaped island of Run, the most prolific natural nutmeg factory of them all, the methodical Hollanders eventually struck a deal. Under the treaty of Banda, signed in 1667, the English gave up their stake in the Bandas in return for New Amsterdam, a larger but comparatively unpromising Dutch trading post on the same chilly northern island where I now happen to live -- Manhattan.

Got that? We're speaking English today* instead of Dutch because the merchants of Holland went for the big money in arbing nutmeg.
*Actually, demographics were on the side of the English in North America, so we'd probably be speaking English of some sort. But we'd probably call little streams "kills" instead of "creeks" or, as they say in Iowa, "cricks," and we would have a in-bred need for siroopwafelen.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Feb 28, 10:21:00 AM:

Nifty post. Maybe nutmeg blogging should replace cat blogging.  

By Blogger luckpoo, at Sat Oct 08, 04:28:00 PM:

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By Blogger Bibliochef, at Thu Aug 24, 10:11:00 AM:

Nice point on the geopolitics of all this. The book, Nathaniela's Nutmeg, though, is pretty darn blase about colonialismand imperialism, don't you think?

See my site, too, http://cookingwithideas.typepad.com/cooking_with_ideas/-- I look at the book in a discussion of single topic books.  

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